Magazine article Stanford Social Innovation Review

Reshaping Social Entrepreneurship

Magazine article Stanford Social Innovation Review

Reshaping Social Entrepreneurship

Article excerpt

Social entrepreneurship has come to be synonymous with the individual visionary-the risk taker who goes against the tide to start a new organization to create dramatic social change. The problem with focusing so much attention on the individual entrepreneur is that it neglects to recognize and support thousands of other individuals, groups, and organizations that are crafting solutions to troubles around the globe.

Social entrepreneurship is one of the most popular terms in the nonprofit sector, and also one of the most misunderstood. It has been almost three decades since the Surdna Foundation's executive director Edward Skloot first used the term "nonprofit venture" and Ashoka's founder Bill Drayton adopted the term "social entrepreneurship," yet there is still considerable debate about when and where the term applies.

Some use the term social entrepreneurship to describe any form of moneymaking enterprise with a social mission. Others use it to describe any type of nonprofit organization that is new to them. Still others use the term to make a new case for an old idea.

The most prevalent use of the term social entrepreneurship, however, focuses on the role of the risk-taking individual who, against all odds, creates social change. In this view, social entrepreneurship is not so much about pattern-breaking change, but about pattern-breaking individuals.

Advocates of this approach argue that this tight definition prevents the expansion of the term to cover every conceivable nonprofit venture, including copying ideas from the nonprofit next door. Hence the search for people who embody Ashoka's definition of social entrepreneurs as individuals with "the committed vision and inexhaustible determination to persist until they have transformed an entire system," who "go beyond the immediate problem to fundamentally change communities, societies, and the world."

The problem with such an exclusive definition is that most nonprofits simply do not qualify as social entrepreneurs, even if they are engaged in the kind of pattern-breaking change that promises solutions to intractable problems such as poverty hunger, and disease. They have the visionary mission Ashoka and others rightly admire, but not the visionary leader. By focusing so much on visionary change agents, prominent advocates of social entrepreneurship have excluded large numbers of organizations that deserve the financial support, networking, and training now reserved for individuals who fit both the current definition of social entrepreneurship and the prevailing model of the self-sacrificing entrepreneur.

Too Tight for Its Own Good

Focusing on the individual creates a number of biases, not the least of which is a lack of attention to the basic ideas that underlie an organization and its goals. Thus dozens of articles have profiled Muhammad Yunus of Grameen Bank, but few articles have focused on the principles of microfinance. Dozens of stories have been written about Wendy Kopp of Teach for America, Alan Khazei of City Year, and Vanessa Kirsch of Public Allies, but few have asked how a small corps of teachers might be able to change the prevailing wisdom about the most effective way to teach, how young people can help mobilize communities, or how to change public opinion about an entire generation.

There are four principal problems with defining social entrepreneurship in a way that puts so much emphasis on individuals. The first is a cult of personality that focuses on individual traits such as achievement, motivation, tolerance for ambiguity, optimism, intelligence, talent, and so forth. This focus strays from what the entrepreneur does to who the entrepreneur is and his or her ability to sell an idea.

Much of the research that underlies this thinking has failed to prove that personality traits contribute to entrepreneurial success, let alone to identify the specific traits that actually matter. Moreover, the available evidence from exemplary social entrepreneurs suggests that success depends less upon personality than it does on teachable skills, such as the ability to activate the public, raise capital, negotiate results, and manage the difficult transitions involved in taking an organization from its initial start-up phase to maturity. …

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